The WHALEBONE BOX
Ratio - ACADEMY 1.33.1 Stereo Sound
SUPER 8 COLOUR/B/W – HD PINHOLE PHOTOGRAPHS – 16mm ARCHIVE
WITH EDEN KÖTTING – IAIN SINCLAIR - ANONYMOUS BOSCH - PHILIP HOARE - MACGILLIVRAY - KYUNWAI SO - CEYLANÜNAL - HELEN PARIS
CAMERAS ANONYMOUS BOSCH & NICK GORDON SMITH, ANDREW KÖTTING, IAIN SINCLAIR & TONY HILL
SOUND ANDREW KÖTTING
MIX PHILIPPE CIOMPI
EDIT ANDREW KÖTTING
ANIMATIONS ISABEL SKINNER
STILL IMAGES JOHN MAHER
SOUND MIX PHILIPPE CIOMPI
PRODUCER ANDREW KÖTTING
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER JASON WOOD
COLOUR GRADE & FIX SAM SHARPLES
The animal is converted to battery - B. Catling
The WHALEBONE BOX is a film about a whale bone box. A box made of whale bone. Entangled in a fisherman’s net and washed up on a remote beach in the Outer Hebrides. Once touched the box can change lives.
The box was given to Iain Sinclair almost thirty years ago by Steve Dilworth, a sculptor based on the Island of Harris. It was always intended to be an active thing, kill or cure. An animal battery. And part of the power of the crafted box comes from its lack of signature. At best this object has the anonymity and moral authority of tribal art, of a fetish, a relic or an accidental survivor. It is dangerous. What is inside might produce good magic or it might produce bad magic but like the box that contained Schrödinger’s Cat it must never to be opened.
In 2018 the box was taken on an 800 mile reverse pilgrimage from London back to the Isle of Harris, in the company of the film-maker Andrew Kötting, the photographer Anonymous Bosch and the writer Iain Sinclair. There was unwellness on the island and they hoped that the box might help, however little did they know the delirium that they would unleash.
And all the while Eden Kötting narrates the story, working as both muse and soothsayer. She tries to make sense of the journey as it unfolds, sometimes awake and sometimes in deep sleep. Ultimately the whalebone box is finally buried in the sand on the very beach from which it came all those eversomany years ago BUT something happens at the very end of the film after the credits have finished rolling, something extraordinary and miraculous….
Incorporating elements of archive and pinhole photography the film is shot using primarily super 8 and super 8 apps. The film embraces the notion of the home-made but always within the confines of the sound and image perfect. An exercise in hauntological confabulation....
Meanwhale: The Box, The Whale, The Film and a Father - D. Spittle
A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know
Jaw, nostrils, lips, the restless tongue, cheeks illuminated, opening like fields between shadows and I LOVE YOU INSIDE OUT when the eyes become milk as they look backwards into the head, remembering John Clare
I LOVE YOUR BONES as they hang above milling crowds, the scaffolding for water held in air
AND YOUR BLOOD AND YOUR BILE as feet on ground, the carcass, the happening of your being
in and with and of the landscape as a landscape AND I LOVE THE SHAPE OF YOUR ORGANS in the pocket
and pool of rot and how body clot of jewels to earth is listening and seeing each in the other to be as biomass
of place, her process is mine and yours and held, a skin box what of this as any form AND THE DARK
we approach and come from to stage our flawed vocabulary and dive BROWN mulch of bowels the COLOUR
OF YOUR LIVER as we move on to oaring old-haunts from any shipwreck, in ribs, timber and timbre
AND I LOVE the foam and spray of change of all-the-while THE SLUICE AND SPILL and the impossible
container OF YOUR LIQUIDS as it moves to wherever it says FORBIDDEN
THE WHALEBONE BOXis dredged invocation, shrieking occult, family proximity, distance, collaboration, care and ruin; it is the betweenand themeanwhile, hidden but central to the decentred and intimate absence of plot. This film presents itself as a continuation of Kötting’s journey films – Gallivant(1996) Swandown (2012)By Our Selves (2015), Edith Walks(2017) – but, just as Lek and the Dogs(2017) seems to draw the ‘EARTH trilogy’ (This Filthy Earth ,2001,Ivul, 2009) into a collagedjourneyingaesthetic, so too does TheWhalebone Boxdraw its journey into a darker, immovable substance: not quite EARTH or SEA but the breaching between – into, and as, a troubled space. ‘Between’ is the suggestion of AIR, but the film often feels as encroachingly closed as the ‘air-tight’ box that is neither simply closed or open but instead in a Schrödinger’s inscrutability of simultaneity, is always on the threshold of one-in-the-other. The shore between high and low tide, in a constant restlessness between the possibility of concealment and exposure. And what is left, what is after – beached – a need to return.
Kötting is returning a box North – from Iain Sinclair’s home in London, to the Hebrides islands off the West coast of Scotland (specifically to the Isle of Harris). The box is made from panelled slats, nay, SLABS, of whale bone, bound together and sealed in a ghost white chest. The bones were taken from a beached whale and then cleaned and sculpted by the artist Steve Dilworth. Dilworth’s unique spirit is everywhere in this film, communicating seamlessly (or in shifting séance) with Kötting’s own tireless eye-to-soil lensing of landscape and the happenstance of what is found. Dilworth’s art has been described as both shamanistic and scavenging, occupying a visionary isolation of ‘making’ from his remote house on the Isle of Harris. Through resurrecting natural matter and animals from death, decay and neglect, into uncanny geometries of sculpture, he has created his own cosmology of objects.
Two birds, beaks crossed, found dead in the nest. The sun-dried carcass, mummified, skin shrunken around an armature of bones. A cat and a rat, reanimated in frozen dialogue. The armadillo’s armour, sparrow hawk’s talon, the earth, braided grass and rope, carapace, coffin, the vast geology of indifference, collected and re-built, reimagined as totemic coordinates. The skull and stones. The hidden vial of calm water, storm water, foam and spray. Notched vertebrae and the polished curves of rock. Each in cryptic dialogue with the other, mythologised into shapes of mute speech. Returned to the land. Encased by and with. What is seen and the hidden bird, feathers kept in a hollow of stone. Flight in the immovable.
And the BOX, the unopened possibility of its open possibilities. Bone heart as secret, what is hiding contained by the structure of what was hidden. Closed. Something reimagined to be again reimagined by Kötting’s film. Excavations and burials, ‘in this brief transit where dreams cross’ as Eliot put it, and as Kötting then put Eliot in his own quarry of sound. The BOX as its own transportation, as the memory of bone and the might-be memory of its contents. Containment as content but trembling with something else, something unsettled –
“Can you see the sea?”
when the human engine waits
Perhaps Dilworth’s most fascinating and unnerving creation, ‘The Hanging Figure’, is seen in the film: hanging from the ceiling of the Dilworth’s workshop like the cocoon of an ancient body. Braided rope, woven horsehair, bindings of seagrass and the re-assembled bones of a human skeleton; all painstakingly (re)constructed by Dilworth to (re)create an ageless and genderless being, ordained with the hand stitched aura of ritual. Outside of time, Dillworth’s shamanic sleeping-bag holds a lifeless sleeper beyond death, neither male or female, a relic from the future. A bundled taxonomy, suspended and calling out from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ (The Waste Land, 1924):
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea
This found and re-built collection of bones and papered skin, aleatory angel hanging, could be the guardian of the box or the spirit of the box, or, just as it watched over Dilworth’s studio, its image newly found by Kötting, presides over the film. Recalling Walter
Benjamin’s obsession with Paul Klee’s painting, ‘Angelus Novus’. The painting, as rapturously described by Benjamin :
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.
‘What can you see?’
‘You can’t see the past?’
Andrew and Eden, father and daughter, two collaborators visiting London’s Natural History Museum. Adverts for an exhibition are placed in the museum’s opening hall, below the suspended skeleton of a blue whale, the adverts are beside an owl in a perspex box and read: Visit Life in the Darkand Visit Today. Andrew and Eden, child and adult, adult and adult, cared for and caring, seen by and seeing, two explorers visiting the British Museum. They are looking at Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon whale bone chest from the early 8thCentury. It is adorned with runes, inscriptions, alphabets and, most significantly, narrative scenes. Myth and stories proliferate from different cultures and times: Christian images, Roman history and mythology, Germanic legend, Homeric epic, and the lost and founding tales that – as the audio description informs us – come alive with the multivalence of interpretation. But it isnarrative. It is knife-cut narrative:a she-wolf nourished them / a wretched den / rushes / wood / bitter/ The terror king became sad where he swam / on the shingle / whale bone…scenes engraved ‘with all the weight and complexity of narrative’. Meanhile, the Whalebonebox of Kötting’s film, of Eden’s dream, and of Dilworth’s making, ‘devours narrative, like a black hole’.
Kötting’s films return always to the turning away from narrative, the all ways, a turning away as narrative. Arguably the EARTH trilogy provided resistance to the intuitive evasion of resolution, adapting novels and plays, coming closer (closest in Ivul) to narrative and working themselves hereon / hereover / hereunder the groundof drama. In the journey-films, the natural narrative of a journey (the setting out, the feet on the ground, and the return) seemed a convenient spine from which to contort the beast of narrative – with happenstance, opportunity, and tangent. Always beneath these distracting models for narrative was the natural pulse towards the turning further in the mire. The mud beyond the footpath, bounding beyond the chain-link warning (it reads FORBIDDEN) at Montségur. Before Gallivant(sequences from which, POV looking out from the travelling van’s dashboard, are revisited in this film, the box resting on the dashboard like a holding of memory – a mute reminder), back into Kötting’s very first early shorts was a (student) film that seemed to unroll itself from the weathered skip of a lost avant-garde, as perhaps envisaged by Beckett in a particularly silly mood…this being the primal prattery of Klipperty Klöpp. A mischievous but equally unsettling and convulsive rumination of forgetting, in which a man throws himself round and round into and across a field:
It takes me right back to when things are a lot clearer now.
Foggy wasn’t the word it,
It was well muggy.
See I remember he said ;
He said, this my son is a sun
A prehistoric sun.
The field becomes a trodden Mobius strip, its figure-of-eight infinity beaten into the ground like manic crop circles circled in the hurried confusion to be elsewhere. Films spill over their announced endings, chapters repeat and disregard their supposed function as reliable markers, and most often we return to where we began – never neatly or with calculation, but with the gesture that assures (with its lack of assurance) that any narrative is only ever accidental or illusory. There can be no simple moving forwards but, like Dilworth’s ‘Hanging Figure’, a suspension looking both ways: the whale breaching and beached through change.
What is the box?
Brief words are hard to find
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
It is a bomb. A black box, the record of what went wrong. Pandora’s box, the hurt to be released. It is a coffin. A house, the place we build in place. It is a space. Held and holding. It is the purring of Schrödinger’s dead cat. The whale bone box is, without a doubt, a doubting, heavy, multitude. Does it contain the calm water of Dilworth’s promise or the slipping memory and metaphor of the whale? Both and neither probably. It contains probably. I dance around its definition (Klipperty Klöpp!) because it is the film’s obscure engine, at once intensely personal and endlessly open – without ever opening. I think it is helpful to remember that a box can contain a world just as it can protect against a world.
In constant and confusing relationship with the box and the whale is Kötting’s daughter Eden. Eden paints and sings and dresses-up and shakes and smiles and grimaces in most of his films, as also – the distinction porously examined – in his life: the movement between art and / as family being of recurrent interest. Eden was born with Joubert syndrome, a rare genetic disorder which affects the cerebellum (specifically the absence or underdevelopment of the cerebellar vermis), damaging control around balance and coordination. It stunts areas of cognitive and speech development and can impair internal organs. The most common features are often grouped around hyperpnea (rapid breathing), hypotonia (decreased muscle tone), and ataxia (deteriorating or making near-impossible certain voluntary muscle movements: swallowing / speaking / walking / vision). It can be a very debilitating condition. I mention (reductively and in simplified terms) the medical context of this disorder because Kötting’s filmography, as an exploration of how enmeshed life and art can and should be, is frequently (if not always) coming from a very specific relationship with his daughter, and by extension the embodied realities and perception of Joubert syndrome.
In Gallivant, a journey around the English coast was energised through the interactions of Eden with Kötting’s grandmother – a relationship between someone new to the world and someone playfully bickering into the twilight of their experience with, and in, that world.
On the threshold
In This Our Still Life(2011), we see the time passing of Eden’s childhood, her interest in painting, the shared joy of collaboration and the restless camera that, like Eden’s unstill ‘still life’ painting, begins to see in ways physically moved into new attention(s). A kinetic lens propelled in rhyme and reaction to Eden’s roll / range of looking.
of the last mystery,
The Sun Came Dripping A Bucket Full of Gold (2014) was a short ‘Seaside Super-8’, later incorporated in By Our Selves(2015). Eden walks along the beach, supported by her walking-frame and joined by the ‘straw bear’ – a creature that appears in By Our Selvesand that is a version of Kötting, or that is a version of the corruption or market of creativity, or that is an armoured self, a lost self, or that – like a walking creation of Dilworth – seems summoned from a pagan ritual as an idol of blundering multitudes, a shadow that welcomes as it frightens.
at the brute absolute hour,
Then, following a 16mm short film of the same name (with camera work by Ben Rivers, 2014), This Illuminated World Is Full Of Stupid Men: Eden Kötting Sketchbooks 2015-2017 (Badbloodandsibyl, 2017) was published as a beautiful collaborative book. The scrawled words of Andrew accompanied by Eden’s painting and collage. This frenetic, humorous and brooding tapestry itches between diary, philosophy, despair and giggling shreds of cosmic portent: STARGEEZER / IT’S RAINING STUPID MEN / THIS APPARITION
you have looked into the eyes
Cartoon eyes, splashed toothpick arms, stars, butterfly stickers, arrows, and the grinning animal beings EYES DRIPPING BLUE / THE ENDLESSNESS OF ART STUFF
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
[from ‘King of the River’, Stanley Kunitz]
Her drawings were then animated by Glenn Whiting in a short; Forgotten The Queen, that accompanied the feature film, Edith Walks (2016). A rambling archeology of perambulation leads a troop of Kötting’s collaborators from Waltham Abbey via Battle Abbey to St Leonards-on-sea in East Sussex. The journey is in tribute to ‘Edith Swan Neck’, the lover / wife of King Harold, their remains separated for 950 years to be now (then), in fluffed fluxus of drummed enthusiasm, reunited … and the whale casket [THE BOX] makes its debut, carried önwards to lend cetacean marrow to a king’s séance. In Eden’s film, Whiting’s animation captures the nervous energy ofThis Illuminated World Is Full of Stupid Menand the fidgeting enchantment of This Our Still Life, drawing each pulse and twitch into new discomforts of belief, power, history and religion.
Beneath each twang of arrows, the scurrying hearts.
Each violent asterisk, the crockery of fallen stars
dropped from no god and her lines
spoke red around the eye, a sun.
And circling flights in burial, here
the chattering every wing and look of her
to sketch a blur of being still, the birds a language
drawn from trees, the forest underwater.
I want to try to get at the difficult, but inescapable, ways in which the whale and the box (one in the other) seem to relate to Eden. In watching TheWhalebone Box, I found myself in a notably different churning of mood. In Kötting’s films there is always the underbelly or in Lek and the Dogs(2017)the underground…where memory, viscera, and melancholy become inseparable from the elsewhere buoyant foraging or energy of a journey. Yet, in The Whalebone BoxI found myself, more than usual, in a shifting and troubled sense of sadness. Lek and the Dogsis probably the most unnerving or explicitly dark of Kötting’s films, however it explores that realm in a mode that feels innately dramatic: adapting a 2010 play by Hattie Naylor, the film has an embedded drama, and, however digressively envisioned, a character-based narrative that foregrounds communication and became powerfully cinematic. TheWhalebone Boxfeels far closer to an unsettling and personal meditation, something washed up and crawling from the intimacies of a partially encoded diary. Despite being a continuation of Kötting’s journey film, despite sequences on the road and passing trees, and despite the usual peripatetic approach…the film is heavy, returning always to a mute ambiguity in, and of, the box. The whale and the box become slipping metaphors for unknowable sites, where the imagination projects, romanticizes and fears its own speculation.
Whales have a long and ancient history of igniting and confounding human imagination: from mythology and religion, to the eccentric escapades of Herman Melville, and into the ‘whale renaissance’ around the New Age embrace of whale song that spoke as much to ecological concern as it did to desires of meditative transcendence, or a non-specific and candle-lit spirituality. Equally, the whale is hunted. It becomes an image of reflection, to find ourselves in the whale…and then, in tragedies of power and money, to kill ourselves in hunting the whale. Meanwhile, the box is the container we turn to for hiding personal items, for reverently preserving bodies or the bodies of delicate possessions – a flat-pack world to hold our worlds. Equally, the box is where we hide and repress ourselves, where secrets or shame are packed away; each closing of the box an anxiety that seeks to reverse Pandora’s opening of the box…but knowing, as we feel we know the whale, what is there. An uncanny presence that we find difficult to admit or deny. It is this duality as an integral human experience – both uncomfortable and vital – that Kötting’s relationship with his daughter seems to emerge.
In the bookwork, This Illuminated World Is Full Of Stupid Men, there is one particular scrawled note from Kötting that seems relevant:
The incomprehensible resilience
that some possess and that the
every time they get dressed
– Whereas I have her with me
every day to remind me of
“things are never as they should be”
The resilience of Eden, her endurance of a debilitating genetic disorder that, through her living and art in Kötting’s films, and in her own exhibitions, enables a different seeingand making. The resilience of Andrew and family, creating and caring in the demanding realities of Eden’s life…the unrelenting honesty of bodily functions and the physicality of truly supporting someone. The following words introduce the film, whispered as the camera lingers on the almost-asleep face of Eden: I love you inside out, I love your bones and your blood and bile, and I love the shape of your organs and the dark brown colour of your liver, and I love the sluice and spill of your liquids.
Throughout the film, the camera watches over the sleeping Eden and we are told that the whale is living in her dream. The bizarre and beautiful unravelling of a parallel context for the box (beyond Dilworth’s creation) is described as the result of Eden dreaming the whale, and the whale gliding through a forest where Eden shoots it – using its bones to make the box. We see her, staged in re-enactment of the dream: sat in an armchair in the forest, wearing a wreath of plastic flowers, holding a real gun and a pair of binoculars. The unknowable centre of the film, its unopened box, is created by a dreaming daughter. Or, to introduce the shifting reality of the film’s unrest: it is only her dream as dreamt up by a father in an attempt to express his own shifting relationship with his daughter. When Kötting’s camera rests watchful over the sleeping Eden there is again a shifting of mood: between an unnerving sense of her vulnerability and dependence and the more warming sense of a caring vigilance.
The camera that roves over her face, as unknown contours draped in shadow or as tongue or eyes in a spill of light, creates a troubled attention or perhaps an attention necessarily difficult in its commitment. It is the look that Eden gives the whale at the film’s end, the huge model in the Natural History Museum, she stands beside its immensity and the uncanny calm of its eye. This is a landscape of living, like the close-up attention to hear dreaming face, that is at once unknowable and familiar. It is a moment that reminds me of a character in Bela Tarr’s 2003 film Werkmeister Harmonies: a man named Valuska, seen as a village idiot but that in fact seems to live in a sensitive dream of this world, stares into the eye of a dead whale that is brought into the town as a circus attraction. It is a moment of connection and recognition, but one charged with an unsettled and uncanny mystery. One of the honest discomforts of Kötting’s film is the candid strength of love for Eden that nevertheless feels, at times, to come up against the unknowable reality of her very different experience. At one point, we see her lying on the bed with her feet up in the air together, she looks beached, her feet are graphically blistered, her body resistant to the linear plod of feet. The next shot we see is of a whale breaching out of the water.
Understanding that “things are never as they should be”is not a defeatist acceptance of difficulty but an honest appreciation: that the expectations of life and its experience, are built on representations and narratives that we are told to follow; always blind in their reduction of variety and cruel in their judgements. The Whalebone Box devours narrative. There are no shouldavists/couldaviststhat occupy a structured journey, but the tangled experience of truly experiencing our experience and not its hollowed advert. Consequently, when Iain Sinclair describes the box, he suggests ‘the treasure is nothing actual, it’s that strange state of consciousness that you can only achieve out of your own confusions’. There is no answer to what the box holds except our own questioning of what it holds…an existence predicated on the questioning of its possibility. The realization of this is embodied in movement (of perception/experience/language/place /and physicality) that distrusts any answer, binary or stability, but continues – and in the words of Sinclair, ‘dissolve into something grander, rather than being put into a box and nailed down in a particular spot. It’s much better to be on the move, to be flowing and floating.’
As we hear this in film, we see Eden: she is swimming and smiling, beyond any one step of narrative or any solid truth, she answers the phone with her binoculars –
Where we are who knows
where we go?